SM: How long did you stay in that job at Unilever? LD: I moved back to the head office after a year, which is unfortunate because I really liked that job. They moved me back because we bought our biggest competitor, and they asked me if I could travel around the biggest countries and understand whom we should keep and whom we should fire, and then merge the two companies into one.
After that I went to Denmark, still for Unilever. We bought a company there and I ran that acquisition. I then began managing that company and shortly afterwards we bought five other companies and I had to put them together as well.
SM: What kind of companies were you buying in Denmark? Did any of them have anything to do with technology? LD: One had kitchen cleaning products, but nothing at all to do with technology. I did build technology products in my own little world for my groups.
For instance, I would come in and sit down with my team who were all 20 years older than me and ask them what goals they were working on. Every one of them, within my first week of being there, had come to me to tell me that someone else was not doing something they should be. It sounded like a kindergarten and it gave me a headache. I called a meeting to get them to talk to each other, and we talked about overall strategy. We then put it into Lotus Notes, and each team could track their progress.
It fundamentally changed the execution of the group. It seems that for 5-10 years they had been fighting each other, and they were finally working together. They had grown uncomfortably numb fighting each other, thinking it was OK to fight every day. I don’t know what it was; did they go home every day and say “fuck that stupid guy”. That was not something I wanted to be a part of, so I built this product where we aligned people and gained clarity about who does what, how they report, what they are supposed to be doing, what is expected of them, how they can get rewarded, what type of career you can have, and what started there was a foundation for the product we have built today which is the biggest on-demand product in the world with three million users.
Just like Jim Collins says in his book, Built to Last, most innovation comes from frustration.
I was frustrated with all of the companies Unilever had bought and Novartis had bought, and I felt there was no clarity of purpose, there was no clarity regarding what you were supposed to do and expected to do.
Later I went to Stanford Business School. I basically restarted my career, just like the restart button on my computer; I just clicked it, held it for a long time, ate some humble pie and started all over from the bottom up. SuccessFactors was started on May 23rd, 2001.
SM: Were you at Stanford from 1999 to 2001? LD: I graduated in 1999 and it was a pretty tough time. Were you involved in technology at the time?
SM: I did three startups between 1994 and 2000. LD: You’re a veteran! We are the same then, because we have gone through the same battles and both survived.